In 1976, when Diego landed on the Galapagos islands, his fellow Espanola giant tortoises faced extinction. There were just 14 of his kind in the wild, 12 of them female. In a little more than 40 years, Diego sired more than 800 Espanalo tortoises and, along with his mates, helped mitigate the crisis of his species. Galapagos today is home to more than 2,000 Espanola tortoises. And Diego can now retire from the island’s captive breeding programme, a poster boy of conservation.
In the mid-20th century, Galapagos’s giant tortoises were hunted by sailors and whalers for food. The sailors also introduced goats to the islands that depleted cacti — food, water and shade for the giant tortoise. When Diego was brought in from a zoo in San Diego, the ecological integrity of the islands was threatened. Not much is known about his pre-Galapagos life. Estimates about his age vary. One thing we do know for sure: His sojourn at Galapagos established Diego as unique to his species. The Espanol tortoise is known to be shy and reserved. Diego, however, wasn’t just a playboy. There are accounts aplenty of the long-necked, yellow-faced tortoise looking warmly at tourists. A fundamental tenet of evolution is that adaptability holds the key to species survival. At Galapagos, Charles Darwin’s famous observatory, Diego seems to have vindicated the sage of evolution.
There are worries that with limited genes, the Espanol tortoise’s revival could be cut short. But nature lovers need not worry. They could, instead, spare a thought for Diego’s colleague at the breeding programme, known by the nondescript moniker, E 5. According to gene tests, the less flamboyant creature, who is also going into retirement, has fathered nearly twice as many giant tortoises as Diego. Species survival — indeed the domain of evolution — is not always about charisma. For every Darwin there is a less-celebrated Alfred Russel Wallace — for every Diego, there is an E 5.